Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Izetbegovic Era Ends

The last nationalist leader of former Yugoslavia decides to call it a day.
By Janez Kovac

Citing old age, bad health and his deteriorating relationship with the international community, 75-year old Alija Izetbegovic resigned last weekend from the three-member Bosnian presidency where he has represented Bosnian Moslems since its inception.

After the death of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman last December, and the electoral defeat of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic earlier this month, Izetbegovic was the last nationalist leader of the former Yugoslav republics. Now he is the first and only one to voluntarily withdraw from power.

In June, Izetbegovic announced he would retire when his turn as chairman of the Bosnian presidency expired. His four-year term was to have ended in 2002.

The three presidency members - Bosnian Serb Zivko Radisic, Bosnian Croat Ante Jelavic and Izetbegovic - take it in turn every eight months to chair the presidency.

Izetbegovic retired after handing the chairmanship to the Serb Radisic. Halid Genjac, a senior official in Izetbegovic's Party of Democratic Action (SDA), will take over the Muslim seat on the presidency until after the November 11 general elections, when the newly elected parliament designates a successor.

A devout man and long time champion of Muslim rights, Izetbegovic was prosecuted and jailed by the old Yugoslav socialist regime in 60's and 70's, when it tried to stem growing Serbian, Croat and Muslim nationalism.

His incarceration worked to his advantage when communist Yugoslavia succumbed to nationalism and fell apart in the late 1980s. Then together with a small circle of inmates he had served time with in the Foca prison in eastern Bosnia, Izetbegovic formed the SDA party.

He emerged as a political leader and the SDA strove to become the party of Muslim interests in the former Yugoslavia. His blue eyes, bushy eyebrows and kind face won him the nickname "dedo" (grandfather).

One way or another, Izetbegovic led Bosnian Muslims after Bosnia declared independence in 1992, and while rebel Serbs - backed by Milosevic's Yugoslav army - rose up and laid siege to Sarajevo and overran much of the country.

Throughout the war, he blamed Milosevic and Tudjman for stirring up ethnic conflict among Bosnia's Muslims, Serbs and Croats in order to divide up the country. Although he often publicly supported multi-ethnicity of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Izetbegovic was mostly seen as the leader and protector of the Bosnian Muslims.

The war left at least 200,000 dead or missing and displaced more than 2 million people, most of them Muslim. Izetbegovic won support from both Western powers and Islamic countries during the conflict and in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995, he signed a peace agreement with Milosevic and Tudjman. Bosnia was divided roughly in half between a Muslim-Croat federation and a Serb republic in a formula that brought peace but fell short of Izetbegovic's dream of a unitary state.

Despite Izetbegovic's evident nationalism and Islamic religious beliefs, he was always seen in a better light by the international community than his counterparts in Serbia and Croatia. Although widely viewed as a good man, he was often criticized for surrounding himself with opportunists, warlords and criminals.

Aides to Izetbegovic say he frequently believed only what he wanted to hear, which eventually led to his becoming misinformed about the real situation on the ground. The Muslim leadership made several serious military and political blunders both during and after the war.

Several sources have said Izetbegovic truly believed the Bosnian army could break the siege around Sarajevo, and protect the eastern Muslim enclave of Srebrenica. An unorganized, unprepared and unsuccessful military operation around Sarajevo in 1995 left hundreds of soldiers dead or wounded, while the fall of Srebrenica became one of the biggest tragedies in modern history. More than 7,000 people are still missing, presumed dead, after Bosnian Serb forces overran the enclave.

Many Bosnians also blame Izetbegovic for the widespread corruption in the Muslim leadership. Although there been no evidence that Izetbegovic himself was involved, there are many reports that some of his closest friends and allies - including his son Bakir, are involved in illegal businesses in the country.

Izetbegovic admits he is indecisive. It is said of him that he thinks one thing in the morning and something different in the afternoon.

The heavy workload and responsibility scarred Izetbegovic. In 1996, he suffered a second heart attack and was given only months to live unless he stopped work. He has ruled his SDA party with an iron fist, but recently there have been signs that he is losing control and being outmanoeuvred by hardliners.

For years, Izetbegovic has indicated that he would leave when Croatia and

Yugoslavia were too weak to threaten Bosnia again. In one of his farewell speeches, he said that after Stipe Mesic replaced Tudjman and Milosevic lost the elections Bosnia was no longer vulnerable.

Izetbegovic has said he will now concentrate on restoring the heavily dented popularity of his SDA party. In the face of overwhelming evidence of corruption, nepotism and incapability, it suffered a landslide defeat in local elections this April. Many voted for SDA only because of Izetbegovic, and his resignation is expected to deprive the party of a yet bigger chunk of votes in the November 11 general elections.

As for Izetbegovic, only history will show his true impact on the events in Bosnia in the past decade.

Janez Kovac is a regular IWPR contributor

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